The Battle of Trafalgar: Where Britannia really did rule the waves

Oliver Toms

In today’s more accurate teaching of history many of the myths spread by 19th Century nationalism are refuted.

Wars were not one sided, battles not well coordinated and nations more divided than they were united. The Battle of Trafalgar is one of the few cases where the myth really does live up to the actual history of the battle, and how it dictated British international diplomacy of the next half century. The battle itself was the culmination of a 6 month long chase. During the Napoleonic Wars the Royal Navy had adopted a strategy of blockading French and Spanish ports to prevent the numerically superior enemy from uniting and attacking British colonies in the West Indies. Britain was also financing the war effort of its allies, so the profitable trade from the West Indies was crucial. Unlike other admirals Nelson adopted a loose blockade at Toulon, allowing the French fleet under Villeneuve to escape in early 1805. Villeneuve initially sailed to the West Indies to disrupt the Atlantic trade, but returned to Europe to join with the Spanish fleet outside of Cadiz. Nelson was dispatched from England as soon as his flagship, HMS Victory, was ready to sail on September 15. The British fleet assembled outside of Cadiz, and following Napoleon’s orders, Villeneuve’s Franco-Spanish fleet left Cadiz to meet battle. The battle was a masterclass of naval command by Nelson. The British fleet was separated into two lines that attacked perpendicular to the Franco-Spanish line. While this allowed the Franco-Spanish ships to fire before the British ships could return fire, once the British ships dissected the line they would have fire superiority. The higher quality of British gunnery crews and use of the carronade, a short range cannon with devastating capabilities gave them a significant advantage. The battle was an overwhelming victory for the British, who suffered no ship losses; whereas the Franco-Spanish fleet lost 22 ships captured or destroyed. The battle confirmed British naval supremacy for decades onwards. Continued French victories on land would mean the Napoleonic wars continued for a further decade, but Britain and her colonies were no longer under threat from invasion. Britain continued to finance its allies, allowing them to fight back after successive defeats.
The Battle of Trafalgar: Where Britannia really did rule the waves
The Battle of Trafalgar by William Clarkson Stanfield

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The Battle of Trafalgar: Where Britannia really did rule the waves
The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805: Beginning of the Action

The naval supremacy, which had been in the making for a century and confirmed at Trafalgar would allow the forceful hand of British overseas power to extend even further.

Following the 1807 abolition of the slave trade in Parliament a West African squadron was created with the aim of stopping any ship actively transporting slaves from Africa to the Americas. The most successful ship in the squadron, HMS Black Joke, stopped a record of 11 slaver ships in a year. While being the first anti-slavery operation created by a European power, that involved a sixth of the Royal Navy’s fleet at its height, its effectiveness was undercut with weak treaties that permitted slavery in several circumstances. The Royal Navy would involve itself officially and covertly in the Spanish American Wars of Independence. Covertly thousands of Royal Navy officers and sailors served in the fleets of the South American nations, helping the Peruvian and Chilean navies defeat the loyalist Spanish fleet. Officially the Royal Navy’s supremacy was used as a threat when British foreign secretary Viscount Castlereagh proposed a ban on European nations sending aid to loyalist Spanish forces, isolating loyalist outposts and leading to their defeat. British naval supremacy also developed a less moral and more violent tactic of gunboat diplomacy in the decades following Trafalgar. The threat of naval bombardment encouraged local populations to accept the British demands, but at times refusal was met with a devastating bombardment. A Royal Navy led fleet destroyed most of the Ottoman navy at Navarino in 1827 to ensure continued British dominance in the Mediterranean. In China the Royal Navy protected British ventures in the destructive opium trade and destroyed much of the Qing fleet as part of the first Opium war from 1839 to 1842, starting China’s ‘Century of humiliation’. The Royal Navy became the hand that imposed Britain’s imperialist desires. The Battle of Trafalgar is one of the few cases where patriotic history matches more accurate history. As a battle Trafalgar is one, if not the, most complete naval victory in all maritime history. More than that it confirmed the naval supremacy that Royal Navy had been building for nearly a century, giving the British government a unique ability to enforce its will overseas.
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The Battle of Trafalgar: Where Britannia really did rule the waves

Oliver Toms

Oliver wrote for Edition 3, Key events of History.
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